Driving 'The Beast' through North-America
by Isabelle Demaeght, June 21st, 2022
We are back in North America. The first two days are bad days, partly due to jet lag. We immediately get homesick for our super spot in The Ardennes.
It have been six intensive weeks in Belgium. I had imagined a period of rest and visits to friends and family, but that didn't happen. After several examinations (and related trips to hospitals in Genk and Maaseik) a gall bladder operation was performed. That would put an end to the enormous stomach ache I had a few times in Mexico.
'Le raison d'etre' of our stay in Belgium was actually the wedding of eldest son Laurens and Elise with two wonderful celebrations. It became the highlight of the break.
After the wonderful reception in Alken and a final brunch with the boys, we left. We flew with Turkish Airlines because they offer, at a reasonable price, the option of taking luggage (Toyota parts in our case, ha ha). The consequence is that you fly east to Istanbul first, and then fly west to Los Angeles the next day. At the airport in Istanbul, there were no more sleeping places so we propped ourselves up on a series of seats and (never would have thought) slept.
In LA, we take an Uber cab to pick up The Beast in Simi Valley from friends of Adriaan. The next day, The Beast goes to visit the Toyota garage to fix the gearbox problem. It takes longer than planned.
The problem was caused by myself. I have a paper non-Toyota (Ellerly) and a digital, official Toyota workshop manual (of questionable origin). The digital one is missing indexes and some pages, including the description of available gearboxes. The book lists two, but The Beast has something else. So the book is wrong and on that basis the wrong transmission fluid was used. The entire transmission has now been flushed twice with the correct ATF. - Adriaan.
Adriaan, meanwhile, is looking for car insurance but can't find anyone who will or can insure The Beast. In South America we always found an insurance at a reasonable price. It turns out this is not possible here because the car is not registered in California, we don't have a California driver's license, we don't have American credit cards, they can't enter our home address... Grrr automation!
I stay in the air-conditioned cool of the hotel during the repairs and watch the weather report. Temperatures are going to reach an exceptional high this weekend: it will be 37 degrees. We 'have' to eat at restaurants that put little love into their food. We want to get out of here. Away from all these people, away from the traffic, away from the regulated life. Cook our own food. Enjoy nature.
Immediately after the Toyota adventure we drive north to a camping spot in nature that turns out to be occupied by 10 beehives whose inhabitants come to 'check us out'. We do find a reasonable camping spot further down the road. The next day (a Friday) we go to Lake Isabella in the Sequoia National Forest and find a vacant boondocking spot with difficulty.
Our goal is Sequoia National Park - the National Forest of the same name surrounds it. The rules in the parks are very strict (no free camping, smokers have to get their fill in their own car with the windows closed). In the forests one is permitted to (wild) camp anywhere. It used to be allowed to make a fire (which we hardly ever do), but since the big fires of the last few years that has been prohibited or restricted by a permit system. In some forests it is not allowed to make fires anymore and even our little stoves need a permit. Fortunately, this country has not enshrined 'the right to make fire' in its constitution! - Adriaan
In spite of the heat Adriaan works on the necessary and prepared repairs of The Beast. The zipper of the roof tent is made and the new inverter is installed (it makes 230V for our outlets). Meanwhile the solar panels are doing their job.
Just about every vacant camping spot is full and when we move on to Sequoia National Park early on Sunday, we see people waking up along the side of the road... Before we reach the park, we drive 50 km through burned-out terrain. A desolate sight of a very beautiful area.
The Park is known, as the name implies, for its many Sequoia trees. They are found only in a small part of California and only above 1200 feet in elevation. They are Adrian's most loved trees and his favorite park. The largest giant sequoia has a height of 83 meters, a circumference of 31 meters and is therefore the largest and oldest (over 2,000 years) living thing on earth. Sleeping between them (booked online along the way: two nights at an official Park Service campground) is a special experience. Our edible and fragrant belongings must be stored "bearproof" in designated cabinets.
The mandatory numbers accessible by car (largest and second largest tree, the stretch of forest with the most Sequoias, and short, flat, paved hikes for obese people) are very crowded but if you're on a longer trek, you won't encounter many people. On Monday we take a hike that is marked as 8 kilometers. It ended up being 16 because we kept extending the route along the way. But the real challenge was the climbing: 600 meters...
The next challenge was booking a third night. This is not possible on-site. On-line is not obvious, as there is no internet in the Park.... So we had to use a public coin phone and wait for 15 minutes while avoiding the reproachful looks of others... But it worked: the computer gave us the last available spot. But when we left the next morning, the campsite was still only half full. Grrr automation!
We leave after 3 days for the next national park on our list: Yosemite. (The most popular park in the United States.) About 50 kilometers south of the park, I see a sign about "Yosemite and required reservations"... I look it up online and disillusioned, I find that we should have reserved the tickets and that space is only available by the end of July.
We pull the car over and make a plan B. Drive north-east around the park and then into Stanislaus National Forest. So that will be camping wild again. We even have a fire permit, so we can cook food, because in Stanislaus you need a fire permit for everything that burns. Making a fire doesn't interest us. A hot meal does. That there is a lot of shooting in America became clear to us pretty quickly. We found "some" rounds of spent ammunition at our camping spot....
More to the south we look for a higher altitude (2,400 meters) to sleep and then visit Death Valley the next day. The night there is unexpectedly cold. On Saturday we enter Death Valley from the north. We see a sign with a list of roads of which one is a closed road. We are not sure whether the closed road will prevent us from reaching the center of the park. We take a chance: if we have to go back, the scenery was worth our effort too. All morning we drive unpaved roads (and the closed road turns out to be a side road).
The nature and views are breathtaking. It makes us become quiet. We feel insignificant in this mighty place. We find more deserted (because unpaved) roads and arrive at a dried up lake (called The Racetrack because of its oval shape). From there we want to connect to the main road, but the usual route is advised against because of deep sand. "Use alternate route" is posted, but not which one. On one of our GPSes we find the Lippincott Pass, with a sign saying "4WD and high clearance required", a sign we have seen three times already today (and haven't needed anywhere yet). The first hairpin turns look reasonable, but after that it gets difficult. The Beast has high clearance and 4WD but I see yellow, green and red with fear. Our 3.5 tonner rolling sideways down a steep, narrow and sloping mountain path into the river bed, you'd get scared for less. Even Adriaan has sweaty hands. The Beast makes it down to the bottom where the terrain is more passable again.
Death Valley is the hottest and driest place on earth and the lowest in the Americas. On Sunday we visit all the highlights of the park. The highest and the lowest (86 meters below sea level), golden dunes, a borax mine: something for everyone. Because of the temperature we skip the hikes. There are also signs everywhere that say "Heat Kills." And warnings from the Park Service that something can be deadly we've been taking to heart since Lippincott....
We imagine what it must have been like, in 1849, when pioneers accidentally ended up here with horse and wagon on their way to California... Many have lost their lives here. Every year it gets hotter and drier but most Americans still don't believe in climate change.
We leave California and end up in the state of Nevada, go wild camping and finish my blog. Each state has its own laws and taxes. Diesel is suddenly a lot cheaper here.
Tomorrow we head to Las Vegas to win a lot of money or to just look at all the lights, penniless....